BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
JANUARY 10, 2020
“This better not be 20,000-Leagues-Under-The-Sea-shit, man.”— Paul (T.J. Miller)
Borrow from the best. Or if you’re director William Eubank (2014’s underrated sci-fi, “The Signal”), borrow from all the best. But borrowing is only half the equation. To make a memorable film, and not just a recreation, you have to make it your own. Thankfully, Eubank does just that with his underwater sci-fi film aptly titled “Underwater,” proving himself an astute student of the genre.
Let me rattle off some of the homages to classics his latest film contains: “Alien,” “Jaws,” “Gravity,” “Godzilla,” “The Abyss,” “Sphere,” “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” And those are the ones just off the top of my head. A toy shark is hanging in the sleeping quarters at the film’s open. And, at one point, a character calls out “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.”
“Underwater” is, for all intents and purposes, a space film. But instead of taking place in outer space, its setting is the Mariana Trench some 36,000 feet below sea level. The vacuum of space becomes the bone-crushing pressure of the depth. And trust me, that far down in the Pacific Ocean, no one’s hearing you scream.
Eubank doesn’t waste any time. He uses newspaper clippings to establish the setting. Within minutes, you’re thrown directly into the deep end, as the the Kepler underwater mining facility begins depressurizing after what initially presents as an earthquake. The survivors must navigate the destroyed halls of what looks like the inside of the USCSS Nostromo, happening upon more survivors and putting together an impossible plan of escape.
The escape pods are gone, but there’s more on another station across the seafloor. The only way to get there is to walk. Cue the underwater spacesuits. But just like in “Alien,” something is stalking them and picking them off one by one. We even get a close encounter that screams of Facehuggers and Chestbursters.
The cast alone helps elevate the film above the heights of a January sci-fi, horror release. Kristen Stewart proves that she can do it all. This past year alone she’s shown up in an action film, a political period drama, and now this high concept sci-fi. Here, she takes on the Ripley role, even venturing to run around in skimpy underwear by the end, a la the finale of “Alien.” Ripley in was one of a kind. No one will ever recreate the magic that was Sigourney Weaver’s character in Ridley Scott’s film. But, as with William Eubank, Stewart does an impressive job of making the role her own.
Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, and even T.J. Miller play their parts with stellar conviction. An intense score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts provides the tension that keeps you holding your breath. Placing the camera inside the suit’s helmet is also a powerful and effective device in elevating the terror. Sound design works wonders here too, mirroring the horror model of luring viewers into a false sense of security then pouncing when the moments right.
“Underwater” helps start 2020’s year of films off right. Yes, there’s a wedged-in love story, some clunky, jarring, bookending narration, and the cardinal sin of showing too much of the monster (some restraint is appreciated). But the acting and film-craft positively overshadow those shortcomings. When January often feels like the dumping ground for terrible movies, having a solid sci-fi entry surprise like this one is a breath of fresh air.
January 10, 2020
20th Century Fox
(for sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language)
Todd E. Miller
John Gallagher Jr.